The Surprising Lackluster of Wonder Woman 1984
It would be a bit harsh to ask where Wonder Woman 1984 “went wrong” because at worst, it was mediocre, not bad. The harshest it deserves is a solid C — still ranking it slightly higher than the average superhero film. It’s a problem half-derived from having a first outing that was so good, it’s almost as if the sequel had to be lesser by some unwritten law of the nature of genre film. In short: Wonder Woman 1984 was great in all the ways superhero films often fail, and a failure in all the ways superhero films usually succeed.
The genre tends to revolve around some civilization-ending threat. So it follows that if there is a litmus test of whether a superhero film will deliver, it might be whether the gravitas of that threat feels real. If it feels abstract or silly (in a film that is ostensibly taking itself seriously), it fails. The first iteration of Patty Jenkins’ and Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman (2017) had the realism-benefit of choosing an existing era of threats from history. Specifically how WWI would have felt to a world that had not yet had a World War, as personified by Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), and the more literal personification of war itself as Ares, the God of War and Diana’s antagonist (David Thewlis). Steve’s sincere concern for the fate of the world and his battle-earned realism foils Diana’s naivete so perfectly, the humor comes easily — also due to a strong supporting cast (think of Charlie — the shell-shocked, singing sniper, or Etta — Steve’s scene-stealing secretary who perfectly quips “Really, specs? Suddenly she’s not the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen?").
Despite the obvious chemistry between Diana and Steve, one of the reasons their romance works on a deeper level is their complementary strengths — what they learn from each other. Diana can’t accept casualties of war that Steve has long-since dismissed out of the understandable futility of his own limitations, so she intervenes on behalf of the civilians of a small town despite his objections, giving him and everyone else hope. Steve, however, understands that the evil represented by Ares is usually not one literal entity, but a collective of endless foes popping up one after the other in the shared evil of mankind. Yet, rather than being discouraged by this and giving up, he accepts it as it is, and has the humility to understand it’s not about winning with the kind of Epic Hero finality Diana seeks, it’s about quiet perseverance and small battles. And by being ultimately willing to sacrifice himself thanklessly for a minor victory (relative to Diana’s aims) he teaches her the lesson that gives her the understanding needed to defeat Ares.
Wonder Woman 1984 would have been infinitely better if it were not for some bafflingly awkward narrative and editing choices that robbed the film of what should have been its most emotionally-impactful moments. The scene in which Steve “comes back” is a masterclass in anticlimax, in small part because his return was spoiled months ago in the trailer, that the scene in the film somehow spoils further by being even less dramatic. In the trailer, Steve seemingly comes back in his own body. In the film, it is revealed rather backhandedly that he is actually in someone else’s body — but that we don’t even see the other guy past the first few robbed moments because Diana “sees him” as her Steve throughout the rest of the film. The whole scene is so unnecessarily muddy, I have given the choice a lot of thought in a desperate attempt to redeem it, yet even a generous imagination can’t parse how this makes any sense on a basic plot level, let alone how it excuses the crime of robbing the audience of what should have been the cash grab equivalent of emotional and romantic impact — the backstory of the leads handed the writers a free lunch and they ruined it anyway. By the film’s own inner logic, the gods-given “magic” making the wishing stone possible is completely and powerfully unlimited — utterly unbound by the laws of nature or physics. If a wall can suddenly pop up around a country, if a mortal woman can be gifted with Diana’s supernatural strengths — then further gifted with literal apex predator upgrades — then surely, it isn’t a stretch to renew and reanimate Steve’s mere body in all its beauty — especially since it was no big deal for the stone to reincarnate his identity, memories, and soul. While watching the film, I kept waiting for that choice to be somehow redeemed at the end. But the end scene in which Diana bumps into the guy whose body Steve possessed is meaningless, relative to the original narrative heist. We were also robbed of the comic potential of Steve’s perspective. His last memories would have been shooting the bomb, then, as he tells us through exposition, going somewhere vaguely interpreted as heaven, then finally, startled to find himself in 1980s Washington DC. I grieve for not getting to watch the humor of this unfold firsthand. Instead, the few comedic moments of an Edwardian-era man waking up in 1980s America we are left with are, again, full of anticlimax — the best scenes of which were in the trailer anyway.
Also somewhat amiss were the early scenes with Barbara/Cheetah (Kristen Wiig), who was half-wasted in a role with more cringing sympathy than genuine humor. The wishing stone exacts a fee from its victims in exchange for the wish, and later in the film, we learn this was her humanity in shedding “Barbara” and becoming Cheetah. But we never really got to see much of that humanity other than a scene in which we learn she regularly gives her leftovers to a homeless man. Instead, Diana becomes friends with her mostly out of pity, recognizing Barbara’s need for friends and her overall self-deprication, but not much else of subtance. Barbara would have been more believeable had she been a little less pathetic — the degree to which she cringes at her own existence is mostly unexplained despite being a successful academic working for the Smithsonian (those jobs are extremely competitive, film writers!). She may have been lonely and awkward as Barbara, sure, but “total loser” was both more of a trope and a much harder sell, even as how she supposedly saw herself — Diana could have even acknowledged Barbara as her intellectual equal without messing up any plot points. (All women want to be Diana — even women with plenty of existing gifts). In an early scene that should have been longer and less empty, she and Diana get dinner, and Diana tells her she hasn’t laughed in a long time, but we don’t believe her because we didn’t get to see what aspect of Barbara made her laugh, nor has this at least been revealed to the audience if not Diana. Again — what should have been shown, was told through exposition. As a result, we don’t really feel like Barbara has lost much, and are tempted to agree with her that she’s better off keeping her wish.
One of the worst sins of the film was the strange placement of the scene from Diana’s fierce childhood — an otherwise perfect sequence in isolation — which merely belonged to a completely different part of the film. As an opening, the audience learns that Young Diana cheated to finish a game she was desperate to win, but was stopped by Antiope (Robin Wright), who chastised her for her shortcut and did not allow her to complete the final task in lesson-filled consequence. This scene was a flashback anyway — so how does it strengthen the film to put it at the beginning? It belonged to the moment when Diana finally accepts she cannot keep Steve. The scene of their parting deserved more heft anyway, and since Steve is her moral equal (in different ways), the flashback from her childhood could have easily been triggered by a combination of her physical exhaustion at losing her powers, combined with his pleading with her not to cheat his own decades-prior death.
This brings us to the strongest part of Wonder Woman 1984: its climax— ironically the point of struggle for most superhero films, in which we usually see the villain defeated by being killed, often in overlong, ultimately boring action sequences. But this time, we don’t. The puffy and smarmy villain Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) is the kind of threat that feels both real and mountingly absurd by obvious design. Lord’s comic-level villainy would have itself felt too absurd in any other time, but thanks to the Trump era, is realistic in its absurdity. After all, the not-quite-joke that has been repeated so often in different forms over the years is that the reality of Trump’s openly criminal administration would be branded as cartoonish and unrealistic in the hands of any editor of fiction, yet here we are, living in it — bathed in some kind of feast for surrealism that feels like an alternate dimension, yet simultaneously is full of fundamentally-American darkness that has always been there in its underbelly for the right villain to manipulate to the surface.
Instead of defeating him in a final epic battle, Diana, utterly spent from the fight and out of ideas, uses her lasso of truth to show Lord the precariousness of what he most values —the life of his son. As a superhero film in isolation, this is a refreshing choice — to show the villain as complex, redeemable, 3D. As a Trump allegory, it is frankly against the National Mood as our Antagonist in Chief remains simple, irredeemable, and very 2D. Even for those of us (millions) who knew what he was before he was unfortunately elected, Trump is not the sort to have his heart changed by the fate of his own child. It might have been a more timely lesson, had Lord lost his own child, but then… therein lays the moral problem at the heart of the wishing stone: if everything is reversible, is there a lesson? Really? If everything returns to normal, were there consequences? Yes and no. People still had their memories of what had occurred. Diana certainly felt the loss, as did Cheetah even though she didn’t give up her wish voluntarily as Diana did. But people, much like young Diana cheating at the games, usually need real consequences for very bad choices.
Speaking of the National Mood, we will never know how the timing of the release may have changed the film’s reception. We may have been more culturally receptive to this almost-naive lesson about grace and the inner torment of bullies almost a year ago had the film come out before the pandemic, but the final year of this administration has been a bitter pill that keeps taking (literally killing, no hyperbole) Political timing has been a fascinating blessing and curse of this franchise since the first release. In June 2017 when Wonder Woman came out, American women were reeling from loss and injustice on a massive scale and the film provided tears of catharsis — hopeful without being shallowly optimistic or trite. In a sense, the opposite happened with WW1984, which was filmed in 2018 — in a different world. What a curious thing to have something so timely feel ever so slightly out of date. All that said, did I enjoy it along with my frustrations? Hell yes. Will I watch it again and appreciate it for what it is? Yup. Do women deserve a superhero film that deigns to be as mediocre as 90% of the genre? OH GOD YES. Does it deserve to make as much money as lesser films? 100%.
I just really hope Patty Jenkins releases a director’s cut.